Nancy: Is That a Book on Your Wall?

There comes a time in every story’s life when, in order to grow up into a book, it will undergo revisions. And just as my writing process has evolved over the years and tends to require variations based on the needs of each book, so too has my revision approach changed over time. One constant, though, is at some point, I need to look at the story differently by literally changing its appearance.

I’ve used the standard tricks over the years. Change the entire manuscript to a different font. Color code each POV or type of scene/action occurring. Print out the document in hard copy. For my current revision  fiasco project, I needed a new trick. Cue the music of worlds colliding as I realized I might have just the right tool sitting in the toolbox I used for my “day job” career.  In that career, I managed projects creating business proposals made up of multiple volumes of information, sometimes with hundreds of pages in each volume. These proposals had strict margin, font, and formatting requirements; included graphics, tables, and charts; and usually had page limitations per volume as well.

Teams would write, revise, and review the documents online, but by the time we got to our first round of document reviews and revisions, it was time to hang that puppy…er, proposal…on the wall. It’s such an industry-standard practice that companies with enough capital (and interest in investing in the department that brings in the business) install rails on the wall that are sized to slide 8.5×11-inch pages in and out of them. And it’s such an important step to get the big-picture visual of the proposal’s progress that if the CEO walks into a war room (the affectionate name for conference rooms where teams work on these projects) and does not see the proposal on the wall, someone in my position could get fired over it.

In other words, multi-billion dollar companies take this tool seriously.

I’m not suggesting there’s a lot of cross-over between what works for such companies and what works for novelists. I’m just willing to look far and wide for ways to get through the #E(*@+%! revision process. It’s that kind of thinking that gets you a wall full of a book manuscript and a spouse sleeping with one open in case you’ve really snapped this time.

I had to move a sofa and take down some family photos, but redecorating was worth the effort!

But what’s really important, other than reassuring your spouse you’ll be fine someday when this revision is completed and you’re able to sleep again, is whether a tool works. And hanging nearly 300 color-coded manuscript pages on my family room wall worked for me. It helped me work through one of my biggest issues with this book. (Imagine a four-act romance story where the couple spend very little time together in act two and NO time together in act three. Yeah, I wrote that story.) I could very quickly see who (POV) and what (non-romance stuff) was happening, identify places to combine or dramatically edit scenes, and introduce new or revised scenes that feature our happy couple together on the page as if they’re, you know, working toward their HEA.

I learned a few other things in posting my pages on the wall as well. For instance, my average scene length is approximately five pages, which translates to 1500 words for me. It’s important that scene lengths vary to keep things interesting, but good to note when and why they do. When I saw the two- or three-page anomalies, I checked to make they were full scenes, self-contained units of conflict with stakes, changes, and realizations for the characters. For those that went longer – and some went twice as long or more – I confirmed the need for such verbosity. You’ll be shocked to know that some scenes went on a wee bit too long.

Max got all choked up at the ending. Or he sneezed on it. One or the other.

Also, in this story, our girl gets a little more POV page time than our guy. It’s not enough to be a problem, but something to revisit post-revision to make sure I haven’t thrown the balance between their POVs out of whack.

And finally, I learned that everyone’s a critic, including Max the cat. After I’d pulled some of the pages off the wall while I worked on certain scenes, Max removed several of the pages he could reach. I’m not sure whether that means he loves them, hates them, or just wants to see if they make fun crinkly noises.

The moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to try to new, different, and frightening (to those who care about you) tools to aid to your writing, revision, or other creative processes. And remember to warn those living with you before you do something drastic like wallpaper a room with your latest masterpiece. And, oh yeah, don’t let those cat critics get you down!

Have you ever hung a book (or chapter or scene) on a wall? What’s the weirdest tool you’ve used on a creative project?

10 thoughts on “Nancy: Is That a Book on Your Wall?

  1. So interesting, to see what works for people. I’ve never hung a manuscript on a wall and never will. I just don’t see stuff that way. I’d get caught up in how many holes the wall has, or should I paint, or something like that. And because I revise every day, I’d have to reprint the manuscript every day to keep current, and even the thought of reprinting and re-color-coding every day tires me out.

    All I do is reread the manuscript until I can’t make any more changes. I’ve read the full Phoebe 3 multiple dozens of times, with some scenes many more than that, and just two days ago, when I thought the book might be well and truly finished, I cut another 1,500 words. I love the delete key! And that means I’ll reread the last six chapters probably another few times. I don’t know if this is more or less than what other people do. It’s just what I do.

    I have an outline document, which is very simple: just a numbered list of chapters with one sentence for each scene in a chapter. And sometimes when I get started on the book, I color-code just the name of the character who’s primary in the scene so that I can see if I’m hitting a balance in the beginning. But usually by halfway or so through the book, I give that up as unnecessary.

    Looks like your book is almost finished, Nancy! At least, it’s a lot of pages on the wall. 🙂 Congratulations!

    • Yes, for me, this is a point-in-time print and post, not a daily tracking device. I had very specific things I was trying visualize and address. But in proposal world, you do print and re-post pages daily (at least sections that have received changes). Not the most environmentally-friendly process, unfortunately.

      Congrats on cutting excess words :-). Isn’t it amazing how much fat you can find weeks or months after the fact of writing the thing?

  2. (-: I love your cat! I think mine would be just as helpful, if I laid all the pages of my WIP on the floor (my house doesn’t have walls that are accessible like this — many windows, and too many dressers/bureaus/bookcases/storage units making the surface bumpy and irregular). They’d probably add a little color to the story by barfing on something, too, which I could take as an omen, or a sign to change the cat food again.

    I have a feeling this question is too long for a comment, but maybe you can address it in another post. What are you color-coding? Are there four POV characters? Are there any other stand-out tricks you are using with your computer, besides the color highlighting feature?

    I love it when business and creativity meet in the middle!

    The silliest thing I’ve done for a story is make finger puppets, and I had a friend take the part of one person (she’d read the pre-story for the character) while I took the other. Then we had a conversation, then we switched. I don’t think I made much progress that time, but I do believe it would work. (I could also do it with my left and right hands, with a lot less embarrassment. But, I was stuck in the same circle, so I was hoping my friend would introduce some new angles on the situation.)

    (-: I still have the finger puppets in my laptop case.

    • I would love to see those finger puppets! Are they in story-specific costumes, or more neutral so you could use them for other stories? If you pull them out of your computer bag and try again, you’ll have to let us know whether it works.

      It was cat mayhem here when I was taping the scenes together pre-hanging. Our new kitten could not be contained! That’s why many of the pages are bent and some actually have cat-sized bites taken out of them.

      The color coding is to track when the h/h are together and apart. The red is the heroine’s POV, hero not in the scene. Blue is hero’s POV, heroine not in the scene. Green is h/h together in the scene, regardless of POV. And yellow is a weird little one-off scene from the heroine’s POV with the hero in the room down the hall, but the last beat is her going to his room and inviting herself in…So there’s not much h/h interaction, but I think readers will consider it a scene about both of them.

      • Thanks for the explanation!

        Oh, I could definitely do costumes! But, no, I just chose images from Wikipedia — there was some cutting and pasting involved, and so they are stuck in their clothes for now. They are clothed for this story, but since it’s a longer story . . . . Well, I’m not sure clothing makes a difference in this story. My struggles are with the core of their essence, not with superficial stuff — but that definitely could be a next-draft problem! The superficials may need to be addressed with tabbed costume changes!

        (I’m not using superficial as a derogative, but as a way of distinguishing layers. Both are extremely important layers!)

  3. I found an old post that I did about the finger puppets; lol, I managed to get TWO posts out of the darn things. This explains how I made them, and what I discovered by making them.

    And this one explains how I played with them:

    The pics aren’t that great, but maybe they’ll be good enough to get an idea.

  4. For anyone who loves this idea, but doesn’t have the wall space – I have a tip that works in Word. Mark it up using the highlighter pen, then crank it down to 25% or even 10% – you’ll get a good overview of the size of each scene, and who’s in each scene (assuming that’s how you’ve colour coded it) – and if you need to look at one, you can zoom in back to 100%.

    I use this a lot when I’m in the final edit of a document (I used to be a technical writer).

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